WTF is the deal with Oak?

Welcome to another edition of Wine WTFs! In this series we’ll explore wine terms and ideas and try to figure out what the fuss is all about. Last time we figured out wtf the deal is with terroir, and this time around we delve into another often mystifying wine characteristic.

This wine term is one that gets lots of talk but possibly less understanding. It’s used and overused on labels, so much so that many people have no idea what it actually means. It gets slandered when paired with white wines and becomes near invisible when paired with reds.

Have an idea of what I’m talking about?

Seriously, wtf is the deal with oak?

Types of Oak

There are two main types of oak commonly used – American and French. These are actually two different kinds of oak trees/wood, and not the places where the oak is always found or grown, like I originally thought.

Both kinds of oak impart unique aromas and flavours to wine. French oak tends to give wine toast and smoke, and American oak tends to give vanilla, baking spices and coconut. The age of the oak is a big factor too, since older oak imparts less (or none) flavour into the wine.

Some wineries will use oak staves (little planks) or chips to get the oak effect without having to shell out the massive amount of money needed for barrels. BUT, you can usually taste the difference because the oak flavour isn’t often well harmonized with the wine, so it doesn’t taste like part of the overall flavour (this is what people mean when they say oak isn’t well integrated). Often wine made using chips or staves ends up tasting like whatever the wine is with a layer of oakiness on top. I think this is why some people think they don’t like oak.

Barrels at the Grange of Prince Edward winery in Prince Edward County

Oak, Age, Oxygen, and what it means for your wine

Besides imparting new aromas and flavours to a wine there is another major perk to using oak. Since wood is ever so slightly porous putting wine in oak barrels slowly exposes the wine to oxygen over time.

Aging wine in oak barrels creates an opportunity for interplay between wine and oxygen, softening tannins and adding complexity. It also adds yet more new aromas and flavours, like leather, earth, caramel, nuts, and toffee. Now tell me that doesn’t sound delicious!

The size of the barrel affects this interplay too – the smaller the barrel the more contact between wine and wood, which amps up the effect the wood has on the wine. The final piece is age, but not of the wine – of the oak. The older and more well-used an oak barrel is the less flavour it will impart into the wine. This is what people mean when they talk about ‘neutral oak’ – old oak barrels that add the age aspect without adding the oaky aromas and flavours.

To oak, or not to oak

Of course, many wines are made without any oak. Whether or not to use oak is a question that comes into play for every wine.

Some things winemakers might think about when deciding whether to use oak:

  • Does this wine need time to reach its optimal drinking state, like a Barolo or Bordeaux? Putting it in barrels will help it mature and soften.
  • Will this wine benefit from developing the aromas and flavours that oak can impart? Keep in mind that you might lose some flavours and aromas in the attempt to add the ones that come from oak or barrel age.
  • Can we afford to wait to sell this wine?
  • Can we afford the cost of the barrels?
  • Would this wine benefit from age or should it be drunk when fresh?

There’s a lot to balance! And it’s different for every grape, style, and vintage. That’s what makes each wine so interesting! What did the winemaker decide to do (or not do), and do I like it? It’s always a fun game.

Do you like oaked wines, or do you prefer unoaked? Tell me in the comments!


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  • Reply Martha Keil March 31, 2018 at 9:27 am

    Don’t like oak in Chablis, l likeit finein white Burgundy.
    Don’t care for it at all in Sauvignon Blanc and yes i’m Looking at you California.
    More to the pi;t, when the oak is well done and integrated, you’re not conscious of oak per se, but just another level of complexity.

    • Reply Meg March 31, 2018 at 10:15 am

      Oak in Chablis is quite rare from what I’ve been told, but I agree with you, it would get in the way of the minerality that I love about Chablis.

      I kind of like the occasional Fumé Blanc, so we’ll have to agree to disagree on that one. I completely agree on your last point though, the more well integrated the oak is the more complex/enjoyable the wine will be for me.

  • Reply Going Natural in the Okanagan – Palate PracticePalate Practice April 5, 2018 at 10:23 am

    […] which means the wine’s terroir is preserved without, say, all the extra flavours and aromas that oak would […]

  • Reply WTF are Tannins all about? – Palate PracticePalate Practice April 19, 2018 at 10:28 am

    […] Welcome to another edition of Wine WTFs! In this series we’ll explore wine terms and ideas and try to figure out what the fuss is all about. Last time we talked about wtf the deal is with oak. […]

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